Nevada City’s rock star

Dan Reinhart’s artwork is on display all over the town

Michael Young

Nevada City Advocate

There’s something about this town that draws the creative. Nevada City has had more than its fair share of famous musicians, writers, poets and artists, many of whom come to enjoy the waning years of their celebrity.

Then there’s that one artist, I guess you could call him a public artist, who’s spent the last 39 years changing the face of Nevada City with his craft.

He toils in the hot sun and bitter cold, bent over on his knees, slugging heavy chunks of rock onto a wall of cement and then quickly trawling them in place. And while it dries, he heads down to a rock pile and fills up the flat bed before heading back to the job.

Back and forth all day long, protected from the elements only by a beach umbrella and sun hat. It’s brutal, back-breaking work and if you’re a stone mason decorating public buildings and roadsides, in addition to private homes, it’s a demanding existence, but with a huge sense of satisfaction.

If you haven’t already, meet Dan Reinhart.

He’s the guy who just spent six weeks on Adams and Nile streets in downtown Nevada City, creating a beautiful 200-foot-long, 4½ foot high ribbon of local rocks along a curve of the road that leads to the popular townie getaway Pioneer Park.

It immediately transformed the area, making something old out of something new. There’s a new sidewalk for kids heading to the park swimming pool. The design of the wall is a “potpourri” of contrasting yet cohesive colors and shapes with pieces of petrified wood he gets from the nearby Diggins.

He’s got quite a resume: Pioneer Park Band Shell, Seaman’s Lodge and restroom, the Pine Street Bridge abutments, Zion Street from SPD to the Grass Valley border, Calanan Park, the Carriage Barn and the Nevada City Winery – basically all the public stonework for the city over 39 years.

He gets his inspiration from books on the stonework of Italy, Japan, Vietnam and even the craftsman houses in Pasadena.

“It’s a creative process. You’re basically moving rocks around, but in a way that people recognize,” he says. “Your work is a language.”

And it speaks of Nevada City, a gold rush town assembled and reassembled by hand a number of times as wildfire roared through in the 1800s. The stones survived; they now give us “that look.” 

“Once it’s finished, someone can drive up from Roseville without knowing it wasn’t done 80 years ago,” he says.

In a lot of ways, Reinhart was destined to be Nevada City’s rock star.

Raised by his grandparents, he grew up in Topanga Canyon outside Los Angeles, an idyllic, rural setting much like Nevada County, where he swam in creeks, scaled hills, caught snakes and raised a red tail hawk. His mother had moved to New York to seek her fortune and become a model. She would fly him out, where he would meet her friends, like prizefighter Jake LaMotta, the inspiration for the movie “Raging Bull.”

But he loved to return to the bohemian celebrity of Topanga. His grandfather had sold some land to folksinger Woody Guthrie and the place was filled with “pre-hippie beatniks.” 

“I was inspired by the artists and sculptors,” he says.

The canyon later became famous as an enclave of rich-hippie musicians like Neil Young, Taj Mahal and Emmylou Harris.

But first, Uncle Sam wanted him.

He was drafted and sent to Vietnam with the Signal Corps where he worked all day splicing cables atop telephone poles. 

Despite the inherent danger of being “a sitting duck” for enemy fire, the poles gave him a perch on which to admire all the mosaic work, where broken glass and pieces of pottery are shaped into intricate designs.

“I wasn’t into the war scene. I went to Buddhist temples and shrines and saw beautiful mosaics, where the eye of a dragon would be the bottom of a Seven-up bottle,” he says.

“It was not a bad time in Vietnam. I loved the people, the sights, the smells.”

When he mustered out of the Army, he returned to a much-changed Topanga Canyon.

“There was a renaissance in building unusual houses and features” in Topanga and nearby Malibu, he said. “There was also the birth of a new wave of craftsmen willing to create whatever the patron wanted.”

And many times that wealthy client was a movie star or famous rock musician like Doors drummer John Densmore, sitcom actor Larry Hagman, and stage and screen star Burgess Meredith for whom he built a fountain and fish pond. He vaguely remembers a photo on Meredith’s wall of a young boy whom he later discovered was Burgess’ son, Jonathon, now the popular Nevada City musician and member of the band Buffalo Gals.

In 1979, he moved north to French Corral with his then wife, a nurse/midwife who delivered a child of new arrival Roger Hodgson of the band Supertramp. Reinhart did rockwork around the couple’s home.

In fact, most of his work then was for private homes. He built dozens of fireplaces, walls, entry columns and pizza ovens.

But all things must pass and a recession started to rear its ugly head and homeowners quit the expensive but beautiful exterior stone work. 

Reinhart set his sights on city projects.

“I did the (park) restroom for the city and after that everything had rock,” he said. “It was dog eat dog and many years of struggle and being the low bidder to get jobs and survive.”

He was able to keep his bid low because he worked alone and didn’t have to pay prevailing wages, as required, to employees.

“He never grumbles or complains, he just does it,” says Bill Falconi, Nevada City’s assistant city engineer, who confirms that Reinhart wins the bids the hard way, by doing it all himself.

Falconi says the city obtained pedestrian safety grant funds and combined it with its own money to create the beautiful walkways. He says there may be one more project.

Reinhart turns 71 this month and wonders how long he can handle the physical demands.

“The rocks weigh a lot. Yesterday, I couldn’t pick up one more rock. But I enjoy the creativity of what I do. I like hunting for the stone. I handpick for every project. The fact that these steel-reinforced walls last for hundreds of years in this little town is an honor and humbling.

“As long as my limbs keep working, I have no intention of retiring.

“People recognize my work. They say it’s a legacy that says ‘I love you Nevada City.’”

About the Photo

Previous page: Dan Reinhart stands next to the rock wall he just finished at Adams and Nile streets in Nevada City.

Photo by Michael Young 

This Page: Dan Reinhart in Santa Monica circa 1985 with a mosaic he created.

Submitted Photo